A Musical Holiday in America: Radiohead, Thomas Dolby, and the Musical Missionaries of Shanghai

Nearly every year around this time (late July-early August), I travel to the East Coast USA to spend some time with my folks in Acton, Massachusetts, and our daughters get to spend some time Americanizing themselves in summer camp. Because so many other folks in Shanghai undergo a similar ritual, they’ve created a direct flight on Hainan Airlines from Shanghai to Boston, which makes the trip more bearable.

This year I was in for a special musical treat. First, I noticed that one of my musical heroes from my 1980s teenage years, Thomas Dolby, was on a tour, and that by coincidence he was performing at the Natick Art Center on August 4, the evening before we returned to China. Turned out I was in for two treats, as I found out from my old neighborhood pal Steve Beam that Radiohead was playing at the Boston Garden on July 28. I booked two tickets and Steve and I went to see the show. I owed him, since he’d treated me to a Coldplay concert at Gillette Stadium the year previous and to a triple header in the summer of 2016 with 1980s new wavers Howard Jones, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark (otherwise known as OMD) and featuring the Bare Naked Ladies of Big Bang Theory fame. Steve and I have a musical friendship that goes back to the early 1980s when we used to exchange albums (you’ll find this mentioned in my blog on my favorite bands from high school).

 Radiohead in action: Thom Yorke sings while Johnny Greenwood plays on a keyboard, and you can see one of the drummers in the back. 

Radiohead in action: Thom Yorke sings while Johnny Greenwood plays on a keyboard, and you can see one of the drummers in the back. 

Radiohead at the Garden

The Radiohead concert was a sonic and psychic/psychedelic blast. They filled the Garden with people and produced a sound and light show the likes of which I’d never before seen. Honestly, I had not kept up with Radiohead over the past decade or so. I love their album OK Computer, which I really got into in 2007, the year I was up in Beijing filming the indie rock scene. I’d listened to that album as well as Kid A when they first came out, but they didn’t really grab me back then. The spark that reconnected me to Radiohead was when Liu Kai, the manager of the Sugar Jar in Beijing’s 798 Arts District—hands down the best indie rock record shop in China—played the song “No Surprises” for me while we were noodling around on guitar. I associate OK Computer with long taxi rides across Beijing while filming the indie scene.

Soon after that, in 2008 their online album In Rainbows came out and I associate that album with a particularly cold and snowy Shanghai winter and with subway rides while working on my first book. It was a cool album all right, with lots of mesmerizing guitar bits and chants, though not epic in the way of OK Computer.

I lost track of Radiohead after that, and so the fortuitous concert was my reconnection to them after a decade of neglect. I confess that I didn’t recognize many of the songs they played, some of which are from more recent albums. Afterwards I had to go on iTunes and give myself a refresher course on the band.

The Radiohead concert was quite a contrast to Coldplay the year before. Coldplay seems like a band that was destined for stadium rock concerts. Radiohead does not. They strike me as more of a punk/indie/experimental band at heart—more suited to grungy dives where a couple hundred youths are crowded into sweaty spaces moshing their asses off or listening intently to musical surprises, rather than a big arena where thousands of 30-60 year olds are swaying and singing softly in their seats.

Actually, everyone was standing from the get-go, but you could feel the tension between the musical style of the band and the venue. Every now and then, Thom Yorke, who even with our 150 dollar seats looked like a tiny action figure on the stage, would give a gesture to crowd to wind us up and get us going, and the whole arena would erupt in reaction. And some of the songs go from hypnotic ballads into more hardcore rock, and I could imagine the entire arena erupting into one gigantic mosh pit-slash-orgy, but the venue and honestly the age bracket of the audience prevented the audience from really getting down, though I saw a few muscular guys punching the air in the seats below us.

Naturally everyone—including me—had their mobile phones out and were filming the event. I was filming haphazardly at first but partway through the concert I adopted the method of filming each song for roughly one minute so as to remember what was being played. The act of filming immediately distanced me from the mesmerizing, all-enveloping experience of the sound and light show, so I tried not to overdo it. As soon as I stopped filming, I’d fall back into a trance, swaying to the music as the intensity of the light show hypnotized me along the rest of the crowd—at least those who weren’t busy filming. But I couldn’t help thinking that without that intense light show and without the amplification of the stadium sound system, this could be another cool indie/punk band in a Beijing underground rock club.

Radiohead are quite a unique assemblage of musicians, and the concert prompted me to dig more deeply into the background of the band. Aside from Thom Yorke, who does have an amazing charisma onstage even as he is taunting and screaming at the audience, the band member who most captured my attention was Johnny Greenwood, who seemed to be playing a different instrument almost every song. Mostly he was going back and forth between guitar and keyboards, but he did pull out a drum set at one point and joined the other two drummers for one song (I would have to review my film to find out which one it was). The guitarist Ed O’Brien stood on the opposite side of Yorke and was more low-key in his performance style, preferring to let Thom (who played an acoustic guitar throughout the whole performance) take center stage, while backing him on vocals now and then. All in all the concert gave me an ever deeper appreciation for this British college art band that made it from obscurity into the big times.

Musical Missionaries: Rough Cutting my Doc on Blues and Jazz in Shanghai

Back at my folks’ place in Acton, having bought a new classical guitar (which I’ve been jonesing for for a while now) from our local music shop Minor Chord, I found myself digging into Radiohead’s repertoire and trying out some of their old standards including of course Karma Police, with which they ended the concert, as well as my personal favorite, Subterranean Homesick Alien—still trying to figure out how to convert this electric guitar piece into a version that can be played on a nylon string guitar.

Meanwhile I was working by day and night on a rough cut of my new documentary film on blues and jazz in Shanghai, a project I started in 2004 and revved up again in 2011 after completing the indie rock doc. I’d been filming sporadically since 2014 whenever something big happened (like the closing of the Cotton Club in 2017) and finally it was time this year to turn all that footage into an actual film. I put together a 2-hour version which I screened at the end of last week to a small group of family and friends. Naturally it still has far to go but the overall results were quite pleasing, and I got a lot of good feedback as I head into the next phase: cutting it down to a 90-minute version.

 The Natick Arts Center, a former 19th century fire station, where the Dolby event was held

The Natick Arts Center, a former 19th century fire station, where the Dolby event was held

Seeing Thomas Dolby: Mad Scientist of ‘80s Synth-Pop Meets Piano Lounge Wizard at the Natick Arts Center

As I mentioned, we’d ordered tickets to the Thomas Dolby event at the Natick Arts Center. My step-dad and mother and two daughters and I all headed over to Natick on Saturday evening. The event was held in a former 19th-century firehouse which it turns out is an excellent venue for concerts. It was an intimate affair with just a few hundred guests, and even though we were in the back row we were still close enough to see the gleam in his eyes and the glint in his teeth when he smiled, which was quite often.

The guru of 1980s synth-pop whose legendary contributions to records by bands such as Foreigner and Prefab Sprout (another of my favorites from the 1980s) provided a mix of storytelling and on-the-spot music making. He began by asking an audience member to choose three ping pong balls from a magician’s hat—a nice theatrical touch. Each ball indicated a song that he would play in the first half of the event—and he repeated this procedure for the second half.  After that he started by regaling the audience with a long account of how he came up with the song “I Love You Goodbye” on his 1991 album Astronauts and Heretics—a bit too long I’d say, although I enjoyed the story which definitely explained the lyrics and style of the song.

All in all he performed eight songs that night including his earliest hits “Blinded by Science” and “Europa and the Pirate Twins”. As my daughter Hannah later quipped in a wonderful kiddism, his encore performance of “Blinded” was his “third half” of the concert. He ended the event with an intimate piano-lounge rendition of “Airwaves,” one of my favorites from his first album The Golden Age of Wireless. He also performed “Budapest By Blimp”, “My Evil Twin Brother”, “My Brain is Like a Sieve” (with special guest appearance on video by Jason Mraz) and “The Flat Earth”—which fell flat owing to some technical issues. During some of the songs such as “Twin Brother” and “I Love You Goodbye” he projected lyrics of the refrains on the screen and encouraged the audience to sing along. As with Radiohead I enjoyed blending my voice with that of the singer even if he didn’t hear the results (nor could I in the case of Radiohead since the sound was so overpowering).

 The artist did not permit photos or videos of his performance — thankfully as it enabled us all to focus on him and his music and storytelling. During the intermission, I snapped a shot of the audience and stage from where we were sitting during Dolby’s event.

The artist did not permit photos or videos of his performance — thankfully as it enabled us all to focus on him and his music and storytelling. During the intermission, I snapped a shot of the audience and stage from where we were sitting during Dolby’s event.

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Despite a couple of glitches during the performance, including his piano bench breaking as he was sitting on it, all in all it was an amazing show—everything a Dolby fan could bargain for and more. As an academic who uses multiple media to give presentations, I was very impressed with all the different components to Dolby’s lecture including slides, videos, and screen projections of the real time process of making his songs using his music production software as he performed them. Throughout the event he regaled us with humorous tales from his days performing on grand stages with luminaries such as David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, and he revealed some of the secrets behind his songs, such as the bass line to The Flat Earth which is a simple reggae bass line played backwards. At the beginning of the concert he told us that when teaching his students (he now teaches at Johns Hopkins), one of the first lessons he gives them is that when they encounter obstacles, technical or otherwise, to what they are trying to achieve, they can’t simply fix them by pressing a few buttons—and this is when some of the more creative things are done in the realm of music. Necessity is the mother of invention they say, and Thomas Dolby has proven that over a long and brilliant, if rather unusual, musical career.

The artist did not permit photos or videos of his performance — thankfully as it enabled us all to focus on him and his music and storytelling. During the intermission, I snapped a shot of the audience and stage from where we were sitting during Dolby’s event.

As I mention above, I brought my two daughters to the concert, and even though they didn’t know much nor cared to learn much about the artist before the concert (they are deep into contemporary pop, as I supposed they ought to be at that stage in life), they both came out with an appreciation for Dolby and his music and to my delight they were both singing a couple of his songs over the next few days, especially but not exclusively “My Brain is Like a Sieve” , so in that respect it was a major triumph in terms of bridging the inevitable generation gap in musical tastes and knowledge. I’m sure Thomas would be pleased to know that he now has a 9 year old and a 14 year old among his fan base.